Profits at big U.S. companies broke records last year, and so did pay for CEOs.
The head of a typical public company made $9.6 million in 2011, according to an analysis using data from Equilar, an executive pay research firm.
That was up more than 6 percent from the previous year and is the second year in a row of increases. The figure is also the highest since the Associated Press began tracking executive compensation in 2006.
Companies trimmed cash bonuses but handed out more in stock awards. For shareholder activists who have long decried CEO pay as exorbitant, that was a victory of sorts.
That's because the stock awards are being tied more often to company performance. In those instances, CEOs can't cash in the shares right away: They have to meet goals first, like boosting profit to a certain level.
The idea is to motivate CEOs to make sure a company does well and to tie their fortunes to the company's for the long term. For too long, activists say, CEOs have been richly rewarded no matter how a company has fared - "pay for pulse," as some critics call it.
To be sure, the companies' motives are pragmatic. The corporate world is under a brighter, more uncomfortable spotlight than it was a few years ago, before the financial crisis struck in the fall of 2008.
Last year, a law gave shareholders the right to vote on whether they approve of the CEO's pay. The vote is nonbinding, but companies are keen to avoid an embarrassing "no."
"I think the boards were more easily shamed than we thought they were," says Stephen Davis, a shareholder expert at Yale University, referring to boards of directors, which set executive pay.
In the past year, he says, "Shareholders found their voice."
The typical CEO got stock awards worth $3.6 million in 2011, up 11 percent from the year before. Cash bonuses fell about 7 percent, to $2 million.
The value of stock options, as determined by the company, climbed 6 percent to a median $1.7 million. Options usually give the CEO the right to buy shares in the future at the price they're trading at when the options are granted, so they're worth something only if the shares go up.
Profit at companies in the S&P 500 rose 16 percent last year, remarkable in an economy that grew more slowly than expected.
CEOs managed to sell more, and squeeze more profit from each sale, despite problems ranging from a downgrade of the U.S. credit rating to an economic slowdown in China and Europe's never-ending debt crisis.
Still, there wasn't much immediate benefit for the shareholders. The S&P 500 ended the year unchanged from where it started. Including dividends, the index returned a slender 2 percent.
Still concernsShareholder activists, while glad that companies are moving a bigger portion of CEO pay into stock awards, caution that the rearranging isn't a cure-all. For one thing, companies don't have to tie stock awards to performance. Instead, they can make the awards automatically payable on a certain date - meaning all the CEO has to do is stick around.
The typical American worker would have to labor for 244 years to make what the typical boss of a big public company makes in one. The median pay for U.S. workers was about $39,300 last year. That was up 1 percent from the year before, not enough to keep pace with inflation.
Since the AP began tracking CEO pay five years ago, the numbers have seesawed. Pay climbed in 2007, fell during the recession in 2008 and 2009 and then jumped again in 2010.
To determine 2011 pay packages, the AP used Equilar data to look at the 322 companies in the S&P 500 that had filed statements with federal regulators through April 30. To make comparisons fair, the sample includes only CEOs in place for at least two years.
Among the AP's other findings:
-- David Simon, CEO of Simon Property, which operates malls around the country, is on track to be the highest-paid in the AP survey, at $137 million. That was almost entirely in stock awards that could eventually be worth $132 million. The company said it wanted to make sure Simon wasn't lured to another company. He has been CEO since 1995; his father and uncle are Simon Property's co-founders.
This month, Simon Property's shareholders rejected Simon's pay package by a large margin: 73 percent of the votes cast for or against were against.
Little changeBut the company doesn't appear likely to change the 2011 package. After the shareholder vote, it released a statement saying that "we value our stockholders' input" and would "take their views into consideration as (the board) reviews compensation plans for our management team." But it also said that Simon's performance had been stellar and it needed to pay him enough to keep him in the job.
-- Of the five highest-paid CEOs, three were also in the top five the year before. All three are in the TV business: Leslie Moonves of CBS ($68 million); David Zaslav of Discovery Communications, parent of Animal Planet, TLC and other channels ($52 million); and Philippe Dauman of Viacom, which owns MTV and other channels ($43 million).
-- About 2 in 3 CEOs got raises. For 16 CEOs in the sample, pay more than doubled from a year earlier, including Bank of America's Brian Moynihan (from $1.3 million to $7.5 million), Marathon Oil's Clarence Cazalot Jr. (from $8.8 million to $29.9 million) and Motorola Mobility's Sanjay Jha (from $13 million to $47.2 million).